Box walking, stall circling and weaving are examples of locomotor stereotypic behaviours in horses. They are believed to be caused by a lack of freedom to express natural equine behaviours.

Over time, stall walking and weaving can have negative physical consequences such as hoof problems, joint wear and tear, weight loss, ulcers, and uneven muscle development. [1]

Stereotypic behaviours are repetitive, habitual movement patterns with no obvious function or benefit to the animal. [1] These behaviours are often seen in confined or domesticated horses that do not have access to the same lifestyle as their wild counterparts.

Stall walking, circling and weaving are common and difficult to stop completely. However, changes in management and routine can reduce a horse’s compulsion to perform these actions.

Increasing turnout, feeding a forage-based diet, providing a buddy for your horse, combatting stress and avoiding known triggers can reduce the severity and frequency of the behaviours.

Stereotypic Behaviours in Horses

Weaving, stall walking and circling are undesirable, repetitive behaviours, which horses commonly exhibit when confined, frustrated, bored or stressed. 

Stereotypic behaviours are rarely seen in wild horses, but an estimated 10 – 40% of stabled horses exhibit some form of stereotypy. [2]

Other examples of stereotypic behaviours include: [3]

  • Cribbing and windsucking
  • Wood chewing
  • Pawing
  • Self-mutilation
  • Stall kicking
  • Repetitive licking or mouthing
  • Repetitive head movements
  • Fence pacing

Some horses express one of these behaviours while other horses express multiple stereotypies.

These behaviours can be divided into locomotor stereotypies (i.e. box walking, circling or weaving) and oral stereotypies (i.e. cribbing or wood chewing).

Most stereotypic behaviours develop because of stressful environmental conditions, such as extended periods of confinement or a lack of forage in the diet. [2] Personality, genetics and nervous system dysfunction can also play a role. [4][5]

Horses do not consciously choose to perform stereotypic behaviours. These behaviours are automatic responses or coping mechanisms to help the horse alleviate feelings of distress. [6]

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Stall Walking, Circling and Weaving

Stall walking or stall circling occurs when a horse circles or paces back and forth in their stall or another small confined area.

Sometimes the horse may circle once or twice then settle to eat. Other times the horse may circle frantically for extended periods, only pausing to grab bites of hay.

Stall weaving is characterized by a horse swaying their head and neck from side to side and shifting weight between their front feet. The behaviour is usually performed next to an escape area, such as the door to their stall or a gate exiting their paddock.

Mild versions of weaving involve the horse gently moving their head and neck back and forth. In more severe cases, the horse may horse violently shift their body weight completely onto one foot and then the other.

Stall weaving and walking are annoying habits, potentially contributing to messy stalls or wear and tear on your horse’s stable. If left unaddressed, these behaviours could also seriously impact the psychological and physical well-being of the horse.

Psychological Impact

Stall walking and weaving may result from psychological stress and anticipation of feeding time or turnout. [1]

These impulsive self-soothing behaviours may develop due to sub-optimal environments, feeding, care conditions, boredom or a lack of activity. Stall walking, circling and weaving are associated with limited turnout, long periods of confinement and social isolation.

Horses that express locomotor stereotypies are generally more stressed and have a nervous disposition. Some of this may be attributed to genetic differences, neurology or personality traits, but other factors are attributed to lifestyle and management.

If your horse is stall walking or weaving, it’s a sign that something in their daily routine needs to change to support a lower stress level.

Physical Impact

Short-term stall walking or weaving episodes are fairly common and unlikely to have long-lasting negative effects on your horse’s welfare.

However, the repetitive nature of these movements could increase susceptibility to some physical ailments if your horse performs these behaviours for longer periods.

The AAEP notes that research into the negative consequences of stall walking and weaving is limited, and it’s unclear whether the behaviours lead to harmful outcomes. [7]

However, it has been proposed that the repetitive back-and-forth weaving motion could cause abnormal joint and hoof wear and muscle development in the front limbs. Stall circling can also affect athletic performance. [6]

Hoof, Joint & Muscle Issues

Horses are naturally built to walk forwards and backward, rather than move side to side. In horses exhibiting stall weaving, the muscles that bring the front legs out and in (abductors and adductors) can develop abnormally, causing stiffness. [1]

Horses that stall walk will often circle in only one direction. This can cause imbalanced muscle development, as well as hoof and joint wear on one side.

Imagine a person strength training only one side of the body. The muscles on that side of the body grow while others remain underdeveloped. [1]

Arthritis

In extreme cases, stall-walking horses can develop arthritis of the neck and back, due to the near-constant bending action of the spine while circling.

Excess strain on these joints can cause inflammation and deterioration of cartilage, leading to arthritis and abnormal bone growth. [3]

Weight Loss

Stall weavers and walkers are more susceptible to weight loss, both due to the increased energy expended performing the behaviour and the potential interference with feeding activities. [1]

Horses that experience high levels of stress will often forgo eating their hay or grain to perform stereotypic behaviours. This can result in lower food intake and contribute to a negative energy balance. [1]

Gastric Ulcers

Horses that display stereotypies are more likely to have gastric ulcers. [8]

In some cases, gastric ulcers are believed to contribute to stereotypical behaviour. [9] In other cases, stereotypies are believed to contribute to the formation of ulcers, or both are believed to arise from a common cause.

Horses that stall walk or weave tend to have higher stress levels – a known risk factor for ulcers. [10] Stall walking and weaving can also influence appetite and interfere with foraging behaviour, potentially leading to ulcers.

Causes of Stall Walking and Weaving

Stall circling and weaving are similar behaviours that arise from many of the same causes, including stress due to confinement, genetic pre-disposition, and nervous system dysfunction.

Isolation and Confinement

Long periods of solitary confinement in a stall can contribute to stall walking or weaving, especially if your horse is stabled so that they cannot see or touch other horses. [11]

Horses are herd animals that evolved to live in large, stable social groupings with constant access to members of their own species. Most horses experience stress when separated from other horses for even brief periods.

In one study, stress markers were significantly higher in horses isolated and confined to stalls compared to horses turned out in paddocks. This study measured cortisol levels and the ratio of neutrophils to lymphocytes in horses, both reliable stress markers. [12]

Lack of Turnout

Locomotor stereotypies are also improved when turnout increases, suggesting that a lack of turnout can contribute to their development. [5]

The horse’s natural lifestyle involves continuous grazing while travelling vast distances. Feral horses have been observed to walk on average 19 km per day, taking 10,000 strides daily. [5][10]

In comparison, the typical domesticated horse walks an average of 7.2 km per day[8] Horses with limited turnout may walk much less than this.

Stabled horses don’t experience the same natural grazing movement and continuous food supply that they would experience in the wild, increasing the risk of stereotypies. [7]

Short periods of confinement are unlikely to trigger stall weaving and walking, but long-term confinement could contribute to the behaviours.

One study assessing horses spending 5 days in 4 different housing conditions found that fecal cortisol was highest in horses that were housed alone with no access to other horses. These horses were also noted to be the most difficult to handle. [24] Although the study did not assess stereotypies, a longer study duration may have shown differences.

5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare

Limiting turnout and restricting freedom of movement go against the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare[13]

The 5 Freedoms were developed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council to establish principles of care and management that should apply to all captive animals, whether domesticated or wild. [14] 

These freedoms should all be met to support the physical and mental well-being of the horse: [13]

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by providing adequate food and water
  2. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  3. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment, including a shelter and rest area
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, adequate facilities, and the company of the animal`s own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by providing a safe environment and treatment to avoid mental
    suffering 

The horse experiences mental or physical distress if these freedoms are not met, potentially including the onset of stereotypic behaviours.

Horses are prey animals that can become stressed in confined spaces that prevent the autonomy of movement or inhibit cantering. In fact, behavioural issues are more likely when horses are kept in paddocks smaller than 1.5 hectares or 3.7 acres. Square shaped paddocks are also prefereable over rectangular paddocks. [25][26]

Without the freedom of movement, horses may view their stall or small paddock as a vulnerable environment. This may experience why horses express weaving or stall-walking behaviours near exit gates. 

Genetic Predisposition

Studies performed on Thoroughbred and Chilean horses offer insight into the heritability of stall walking and weaving.

Thoroughbreds

A 1986 Italian study first indicated a genetic component to stereotypic behaviours such as stall walking and weaving. [15] 

Over one thousand actively racing Thoroughbreds between the ages of 3 and 8 were observed to measure the incidence of stereotypic behaviours along family lines.

The prevalence of stall walking and weaving in the overall group was measured at 2.5%. But when examining familial lines, the prevalence was much higher in horses descending from horses displaying these behaviours. [15]

Among relatives of weavers, 26% of horses exhibited weaving behaviour. And among relatives of stall walkers, 13% of horses displayed this behaviour. [15]

The researchers concluded that genetic predisposition plays a contributing role in the development of stall weaving and walking. [15]

Chilean Horses

A similar study on the heritability of locomotor stereotypies looked at owner survey data for 2098 Chilean horses. [16]

Owners of Chilean horses registered in the studbook were asked if their horse had been stabled for at least one year and if their horse displayed stall weaving or stall walking.

Horses of owners that responded yes to beth were then traced back to the sire and dam. Horses from the gene line of a stall walker or weaver were more likely to develop the behaviour, but this was highly influenced by environmental factors. [16]

Nervous System Dysfunction

Neurological traits, such as lower dopamine and serotonin levels, may also influence the development of stall walking or weaving. [17]

Dopamine and serotonin are feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. Researchers theorize that horses displaying stereotypic behaviours may have low baseline levels of serotonin and dopamine.

The expression of stereotypies may trigger the release of serotonin and dopamine, rewarding the horse for performing these actions. [17]

How to Stop Stall Walking and Weaving

Once a horse becomes a stall walker or weaver, it is very difficult to stop the habit. The horse learns that these repetitive movement sequences help to alleviate stress and starts to perform the behaviour whenever feeling anxious or frustrated.

It’s much easier to prevent a horse from developing a stereotype than to try and eliminate the compulsion to perform the action once the behaviour has been established.

However, there are ways to address triggers for the behaviour by modifying their care and routine.

Identify Behavioural Triggers

Horses are likelier to express locomotor stereotypies in anticipation of feeding time or just before turnout when there is more activity in their stable.

One way to reduce the performance of stall walking and weaving is to pay attention to these triggers and change your horse’s routine to combat anxiety.

Providing constant access to forage can eliminate anticipatory weaving at mealtime. If feeding grain or concentrates, remove cues that indicate a meal is being prepared by feeding the horse before other horses in the barn.

If a horse begins weaving, circling or box walking as other horses are being led outside for turnout, consider turning that horse out first in the future. [3]

Increase Turnout with Herd Mates

The best way to curb stall weaving and walking is to provide a horse with 24/7 turnout, but this is not always possible.

In such cases, aim to increase turnout time with forage (either pasture or free choice hay). [3] Larger paddocks are better than smaller turnout areas.

Increasing turnout time with herd mates can reduce stress and enable the horse to express species-appropriate behaviours. Turning horses out in fields adjacent to companions can also help if the horses can physically touch each other.

Provide Free-Choice Forage

Provide free choice forage to your horse at all times to enable the expression of natural foraging behaviours, combat boredom, and reduce weaving in anticipation of feeding times. [3]

Feeding more than 6.8 kg (15 lb) of forage daily is associated with a lower risk of stereotypies, such as weaving and wood chewing. [3][18]

Consider using a hay net, slow feeder or foraging stations located in different spots in your horse’s environment to extend feeding time and provide enrichment.

One study reported on a weaving horse that was switched to a forage-only diet and given flakes of hay in foraging stations around the stall. This placement of hay enabled mimicking of the natural grazing motion of a horse in the wild and ameliorated the stereotypic behaviour. [19]

Constant access to forage also has a protective effect against gastric ulcers and other common gut issues. [9]

House your Horse with Companions

Wild horses live within well-formed social hierarchies to keep them safe from predators. A lone horse is at risk of predation without protection from the rest of the herd. [3]

Horses are happiest when they are around members of their own species and can engage in social grooming and play. [17] Positive social behaviours also correlate with the lowest stress, as measured by cortisol levels. [20]

Providing a stalled horse with a buddy next to them that they can see and touch at all times can reduce weaving and box-walking. [18]

Other animals such as goats can provide companionship if you cannot house your horse with an equine companion. Contact with humans can also help to lower stress levels. [21]

Hang a Non-Shattering Mirror in their Stall

Hanging a mirror in your horse’s stall can mimic the visual presence of another horse and reduce weaving behaviours in solitary horses. [22][23]

Ensure that you use a shatterproof mirror to keep your horse safe. It is recommended to place the mirror at the front of the stall or at shoulder height outside of the horse`s stall so that they can see their own head but cannot touch the mirror.

Hanging posters of a horse’s face in or near the stall can also significantly reduce the incidence of weaving by making the stalled horse think there is another horse present with them. [22]

Another strategy is to provide your stalled horse with a window through which they can see, smell, and hear other horses.

Not all horses react positively to these sorts of interventions. Some horses are more sociable and respond better to imitation companions. [7]

Ensure that your horse does not perceive the visual stimuli as a threat. Removing the poster or mirror or closing the window during feeding times may reduce food aggression.

Change Stall Door Design

One method of preventing stall weaving involves installing an anti-weave grille on the top of the stall door. This specialized grille allows the horse to poke their heads over the top of the stall door, increasing the perception of freedom and the opportunity to interact with animals outside of their stall.

However, the swooped design of the door prevents the horse from weaving back and forth without hitting themselves on the metal.

This door design does not reduce or eliminate the underlying cause of the behaviour and may cause the horse to exhibit other stereotypic behaviours such as cribbing.

Inhibiting the weaving motion interferes with the horse’s automated coping response and could lead to increased distress and frustration.

Summary

Stall walking, circling and weaving are abnormal repetitive behaviours that are expressed in response to sub-optimal environmental conditions.

These stereotypic behaviours may help the horse cope with stressful circumstances, such as social isolation, limited turnout, and a lack of freedom to express natural equine behaviours.

To stop a horse from box walking or stall weaving, it is crucial to find out why the horse is displaying this behaviour.

Take this opportunity to review your horse’s management, routine, environment, feeding plan and exercise program to identify ways to better support their welfare. Simple changes can lead to a happier, healthier horse.

If you are concerned about your horse’s health due to stereotypical behaviours, consult with your veterinarian. You can also submit your horse’s information online for a free diet evaluation by our qualified equine nutritionists.

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References

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  2. Carroll, S. et al. An online survey investigating perceived prevalence and treatment options for stereotypic behaviours in horses and undesirable behaviours associated with handling and riding . Equine Vet Edu. 2020.
  3. McGreevy, P. Equine Behavior- A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists. Saunders Elsevier. 2014
  4. Hemmann, K. et al. Exploration of known stereotypic behaviour-related candidate genes in equine crib-biting. Animal. 2014.
  5. Roberts, K. et al. Causal factors of oral versus locomotor stereotypy in the horse. Journal of Vet Behaviour. 2017
  6. Houpt, K. Stable Vices and Trailer Problems. Vet Clinics of NA: Equine Practice. 1986
  7. Mills D.S. et al. Weaving, Headshaking, Cribbing, and Other Stereotypies. AAEP Annual Convention. 2005.
  8. Sykes, B. et al. Management factors and clinical implications of glandular and squamous gastric disease in horses. J Vet Intern Med. 2019.
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